Reconsidering “women-born-women” space

… and now for something completely unrelated to electoral politics.

As many Feministe readers probably know, the Michigan Women’s Music Festival has been a source of controversy for almost two decades now, due to its policy of being a women’s space that does not officially allow trans people inside its gates. I used to be very interested in this debate, mostly because of the ideological implications: who gets to police the lines of gender? What exactly is at stake for this community, and for those excluded by it–both materially and symbolically? Is there a clear-cut answer as to how trans women differ from other women… physically, experientially, socially, spiritually?

(If you want a primer to all of this, I highly recommend Michelle Tea’s mega-essay, “Transmissions from Camp Trans” — although if you want to read the whole thing you’ll have to order a back issue of the Believer, unless anyone knows of a copy that’s available online?)

In discussion forums, most notably the message boards at Michfest.com, there have been dozens of different arguments advanced in the crucible of debates about “the policy.” They range from women’s safety (is it threatened by trans people? all trans people?) to body essentialism (how much do genitals matter? what if they’re made out of silicone?) to questioning the fundamental legitimacy of people’s identities, whether as “transgender” or as “women-born-women.” And when I say arguments, what I’m really referring to half the time are no-holds-barred flame wars characterized by utter frustration and contempt on both sides. (Not to mention some half-deranged trolls with ten sockpuppets.) Far too often, these debates have included some of the most derogatory and invalidating statements towards trans people–especially towards trans women–that I’ve ever seen anywhere, from anyone. And I’ve seen quite a bit in my day, believe me.

It’s really no wonder that most queer and/or trans folks I’ve known who used to feel like they had a stake in this discussion (because they identify as lesbians, dykes, queer women, trans, or multiple of the above) burnt out on it long ago. For trans people, it can be form of verbal self-abuse to even engage in a lot of the aforementioned discussions, and from what I’ve seen amongst peers, often linked to feelings of self-hatred or emotional masochism. Are you a trans person with an urge to read someone saying horrible things about you that’ll make you cringe? Check out the Michfest boards! Personally, I never participated directly and eventually became steadfastly neutral on the whole subject of “the policy.” I don’t really think it really matters that much how a yearly gathering of women polices its boundaries. Regardless of how regrettable their decision may be for building connections between women who need them, it’s really up to that community (including those who genuinely want to join it) to figure out how to run itself. Plus, the whole thing was just giving me a headache.

Still, I’ve been stuck for years with this nagging feeling that there’s something beneath all the vitriol and misunderstanding and clinging to positions like they’re life-rafts that will save us from the patriarchy. There’s some kind of important work being done in these stubborn grudge matches, in the minds of many women who read and write in these discussions. Like a very smart lady just said a few hours ago, “some of those rocks will be turned over, and some ugly shit is going to come out. Which will be painful, but necessary. Sunlight being the best disinfectant and all.”

Sometimes that nagging feeling I have gets validated by a real gem of insight popping up.

Over at Questioning Transphobia, Lisa reposted a piece written by Cicely that was originally written on the Michigan Women’s Music Festival message boards. It’s about how she changed her mind on the subject of the policy, and the process she went through in thinking about it, from feeling like non-trans women shouldn’t have to think about or confront the issues that trans women face all the way to concluding that the problem lies in the concept of “women-born-women space” itself.

She ends up asking herself a lot of very valid and probing questions like:

Is total exclusion of trans women from a festival celebrating the diversity of women an appropriate way to deal with the differences between cisexual and transexual women? After all, we accommodate every single one of our other differences, including those that impact dramatically and permanently on our life paths and often make it difficult for us to understand each other – differences like race, class or ability – all of which involve privilege or lack thereof.

One of the most interesting things that Cicely writes is that she started asking more of these questions as she came into contact with more viewpoints via the blogosphere, notably Alas, a Blog, where she started reading the thoughts of other people on the subject, including trans women. Having watched this debate rather quietly from the sidelines for many years, I have to say that the blogosphere has totally changed the debate and connected it to a whole lot more feminist thinkers than just various people who attend Michfest or the loose coalitions of trans people and allies who oppose the policy. It’s no longer possible to pretend, as you could five years ago, that everyone who disagrees with the policy are all “privileged, space-invading transgenders” and “young lesbians who are obsessed with trannyboys.” Even more interestingly, Cicely contrasts her experiences online with the few experiences she’d had in her everyday life with trans women:

I realised that in real life I have met exactly three trans women who I knew were trans, and spoken to none of them in any depth about their lives. On one occasion, which is now over a decade ago, I took my prejudices along with me, and when she and I (both of us lesbians and feminists) had a small political disagreement I privately considered that she had argued in a ‘male’ fashion, that she probably learned to believe in the rightness of her opinions as a male, and finally, that she’d got her university degree while she was a he, and possibly with a level of encouragement often reserved for the males in a family. I didn’t deny her current womanhood or her lesbianism, but I did consider her to be something I most definitely was not i.e. an ex man. My almost automatic response to the situation, because of my beliefs, was to silently ‘other’ and dismiss her, rather than just agree to disagree. I didn’t think I was wrong to do that at the time. It made sense to me. It doesn’t anymore.

This is really interesting, even beyond the moving quality of someone telling a story about how their opinions changed on a very emotional issue. Especially in the last few years, I’ve read many generalizations about trans women being aggressive, or entitled, or domineering; like Cicely, the authors of these accounts base their generalizations on an experience with one or two people. But like most any widespread population found across all walks of life, ethnicities, income levels, political ideologies, religiosn, generations, etc. it’s hard to really make any accurate generalizations about trans women as a whole. Especially since any of us might be interacting with trans people every day and just not realizing it! I tend to assume that I do all the time. Then Cicely really hits the nail on the head:

I no longer assume that trans children – female or male – receive gendered messages from society in an uncomplicated fashion. I no longer assume that a trans woman who transitions later in life was not a trans child. I no longer assume that because a trans girl or trans woman’s femaleness was/is not visible (and so also not ‘official’), it was/is not a female experience of the world. I no longer assume it’s appropriate to think of trans women generally as ex men, regardless of the lives they lived while being perceived as someone they were not. I no longer assume that every trans woman has benefitted in any meaningful way from having had a male body.

I have not seen evidence of specifically male ways of thinking and/or communicating among the many thoughtful, sensitive, articulate and feminist trans women I’ve had the pleasure of reading and learning from over the past two years. That has proven to be a nonsense.

This succinct yet deep analysis dives to the heart of a lot of the arguments around the Michfest policy. Once you get past the bio-essentialist debates (is it really a good or feminist idea to reduce women to “person with vagina?”) and the red-herring concerns about whether women will be safe with trans people around, the bogeyman slippery slope arguments (“any day now, a bunch of frat boys will show up pretending to be women!”) and the attacks on the very idea that anyone should transition at all, you’re left with one rather central issue. Trans women and non-trans women, almost by definition, have different experiences of infancy and childhood, treated differently by the world because we are all assigned to two different social classes.

But Cicely goes one step further and has the guts to ask, “but what does that mean for someone who experiences dissonance with their body and/or gender assignment?” I don’t want to sound too gushy, but it’s admirable to see someone deconstructing the way their own privilege has molded their thought processes. It’s not something you see every day. Definitely recommended reading.

Her conclusion:

It’s my opinion that if you accept that trans women are women, it’s not good enough to say trans women are too different, they make you uncomfortable, so you don’t want them in any particular women’s space. Anti-discrimination legislation isn’t designed to pander to people’s feelings of comfort. It’s designed precisely to challenge and even override them when they deny other people their equal rights. Asking or expecting individual trans women or all trans women as a group to agree to participate in discrimination against themselves (or agree that what they experience as discrimination actually isn’t), is not a reasonable request, and one which can never in practice be satisfied. Either this conflict will go on indefinitely, or it will be resolved by removal of the boundary.

I live in hope that the festival will go on, and become welcoming of trans women.

Although I’m not part of this community, I hope so too. If for no other reasing than the sake of stronger women’s communities everywhere, that grow an can reach out to help more women. Though the flame wars have felt like a thorn in the side of trans-related communities and discussions for many years, I really hope that the Michigan Women’s Music Festival community can eventually work through all of this and reach a place of healing. And that includes those petitioning to be a real part of that community and those who have been illicitly part of it for years under a “don’t ask don’t tell” type of policy, Thoughtful processes like Cicely’s make me think that all of that might actually be possible one day.

36 comments for “Reconsidering “women-born-women” space

  1. PoisonousLesbianRose
    February 6, 2008 at 5:56 am

    Awesome. That’s one cool woman, and she is, of course, right. Though, it’ll probably take a (great) while before any changes to that policy come about… Especially since it’s already gone on for so long.

  2. Mandolin
    February 6, 2008 at 6:57 am

    One thing I find interesting in all this is people who have no cohesive experience of gender.

    I’ve become friends with a student of mine who is physically female, but perceives herself sometimes as male, sometimes as female, and sometimes as neither — with, as she puts it, a small skew toward the masculine. Yet I mentally gender her female, and she doesn’t to my knowledge make any effort for most people to think otherwise.

    I think her acceptance into policed woman-born-woman spaces would be uncontroversial — even unnoticed.

    The conceptual categories of gender and sex are useful tools that describe many people’s lives, and have meanings and implications in the social sciences and in politics. But it’s dangerous to reify them and build walls around the categories as if they were real, physical, things and not abstractions we humans have built to understand the world.

    When you write — “what does that mean for someone who experiences dissonance with their body and/or gender assignment?” — this is an interesting question, and particularly interesting coming from someone with Cicely’s background on trans rights.

    However, I find myself more wanting to dwell on what you wrote just before it: “Trans women and non-trans women, almost by definition, have different experiences of infancy and childhood, treated differently by the world because we are all assigned to two different social classes.”

    Because it seems to me that it’s important for people to be able to look at that and say, “Right. So what? Why should that affect trans women’s participation in women-born women space?” in the same way that it’s important for people to be able to look at a statement like “Being homosexual is a choice” and say “So what if it is?”

  3. February 6, 2008 at 7:43 am

    The “homosexuality as a choice” comparison is an interesting one, because that’s about what “causes” homosexuality, right? The idea in some people’s minds being, some causes are more legitimate or acceptable than others. But there’s not a whole lot of argument as to what constitutes a homosexual. Sure, there’s boundary-policing that especially affects bisexuals, their validity is questioned by biphobia, but it’s widely and tacitly agreed upon that what makes someone actually “more gay” is having same-sex romantic and sexual relations. (And really it’s the sexual relations that are the true litmus test.)

    In the case of trans women, however, the question of “what constitutes a woman” becomes far more central. In a lot of these debates, either the legitimacy of trans women as women is questioned, or some clear and meaningful defining line between trans women and non-trans women is sought out. It has to be a line that’s demonstrably meaningful, because for the purposes of arguing for exclusion, you have to show that there’s some substantive difference that requires separation, separate nurturing, protection, etc.

    So the whole question of “what is woman” comes up, which of course is a perennial feminist question. Hopefully we all remember de Beauvoir pointing out that it’s hard to define precisely because the system of sexism casts “woman” as the negative shadow. The clear plurality of experience among over 3 billion women also presents a problem for easy definition. Biology as the master rule, defining a woman by her body, is also not real popular among feminists for obvious reasons.

    This is basically why most of the interesting arguments about difference revolve around experience. When you boil it down it’s not that much different than MacKinnon’s idea that female experience carries with it particular ways of seeing and knowing, due to being subordinated by sexism (c.f. the subaltern perspective) and produces its own kind of knowledge that men don’t have. Of course, the tricky part is that a whole lot of trans women do have the experience of living and working and relating every day under the same sexist pressures as every other woman.

    The next step in the argument, therefore, is to go back to people’s childhood, before the vast majority of people had much agency over the way they presented their gender, how they were perceived, how they were treated. The important notion about childhood is that people get “baked” by socialization. We start off as little innocent balls of dough, maybe with slightly different inherent ingredients, and then we’re baked at totally different temperatures. As a result, some of us pop out of the oven socialized “female” and some “male,” and that’s that, you’re hardened and done and that’s what you’re like. Society does a pretty good job of sorting people by genitals, and has a history of cutting up infants to conform to those standards too, so how you get baked is assumed to go along with your genitals.

    Aside from the question of whether people really get irrevocably “baked hard” somehow during childhood, there’s also the question that Cicely hits on. What a bunch of feminists who made these arguments didn’t really take into account is that the “baking” process always goes awry in the case of trans people. If it worked perfectly, nobody would want to transition, because you’d be set in your gender role — especially the male-assigned with their privileged positions, who have fewer reasons to complain. A trans childhood is qualitatively different from the platonic notion of a “male childhood” or a “female childhood,” but most people don’t realize this and think only the external fact — that a child is being treated like a little boy or girl — is relevant. Really, it’s like trying to bake dough at the same temperature when it’s got frozen chunks of cheese in it, or something.

    So, what’s the point after all this? Really, it’s that people are looking for some reason to justify their unease with having trans women around, and what’s ensued is a thorough investigation into difference. The difference, it turns out, is that trans kids generally have a different experience of socialization because their inner perceptions of gender are “haywire” from the point of view of how the normative gender system is trying to socialize them. Of course, the degree of difference varies enormously from one trans person to the next, which just makes it more complicated and more impossible to generalize.

    So what do you do with people who basically “didn’t get cooked right” with respect to gender? Toss them out of every category? Or include them, out of respect for the fact that everywhere, there are people who live on the margins and borders? I know what I think the answer is.

    As intersex activist Raven Kaldera once wrote, every time you draw a line to divide a group of people, you’re going to cut right through someone’s life, someone’s body. Maybe we live in a world where boundaries are inevitable and important. But boundaries also owe something, I think, to those whose bodies and life they get heedlessly drawn over.

    Of course, another answer is, we don’t care about what people’s childhoods are like — if someone has the experience of moving through the world as a woman, and identifies as a woman, they should be in woman’s space. But inevitably, trans people end up having to justify their childhoods as well. Another answer might be — stop reifying gender! Don’t rely on it for rules like it’s a real thing! But that might be a little premature, especially if you believe that there’s a reason to have women’s space in a world that’s hostile and sexist.

  4. February 6, 2008 at 7:51 am

    I have to say that the blogosphere has totally changed the debate

    I caught the tail-end of an NCIS episode last night, the premise of which appeared to be “the criminal got a sex change and hid in plain sight as a woman”. The joke was that one of the policemen was making out with her(/him? if it was all a ruse? Although I really don’t think anyone would go that far just like that) before he found out. Later, he yells “stop him” and nobody reacts until his partner shouts “for gods sake, stop HER”, and the punchline was “so… how did it feel to tongue a guy?”

    I mean, this is the state of popular culture today. And most people do not come into personal contact with transpeople. So you’re right, the blogosphere is tremendously important in individualising the whole concept for the mainstream population. I really hope the trend continues.

  5. February 6, 2008 at 8:20 am

    And you didn’t even mention that the NCIS agent pulled his gun out on the trans woman once he found out she was trans, and that the whole thing ended with her at gunpoint, lifting her gun to apparently commit suicide, and then getting shot point blank by an officer. Oops, dead villanous tranny!

    I can’t say I’m super-confident that the blogosphere is going to change the state of popular culture on its own. However, TV is slowly shifting in certain ways — not sure if all of it is good, but especially after the very sympathetic, almost tear-jerking Barbara Walters special about trans kids, there was also that sympathetic trans character on All My Children, and Billy Baldwin is playing a character on ABC’s Dirty Sexy Money who’s both the Attorney General of New York State, contemplating a run for the Senate, and having an affair with a trans woman… who, notably, is played by an actual trans actress, Candis Cayne. I haven’t seen the show and I’m sure it’s at least partly scandliciously exploitative in a Melrose Place kind of way, but from what I hear, Cayne’s character is pretty sympathetic and upstanding amidst a pack of scoundrels.

    The current trend in new TV shows and episodes seems to be “trans person as controversial figure — some of the other characters are sympathetic or ‘get’ trans issues, while others are freaked out, repulsed or angry.” There was a cop show along those lines too, forget which one.

  6. RenegadeEvolution
    February 6, 2008 at 9:05 am

    Cicely’s words are absolutely amazing.

  7. Astraea
    February 6, 2008 at 9:15 am

    Have any fictional shows with trans characters actually featured trans actors?
    The only other show I could think of with a trans character is Ugly Betty. I think she’s portrayed sympathetically, but fits into the mold Holly mentioned. The characters who are sympathetic don’t really “get” trans issues, but they get that she’s a person who deserves respect. She’s played by a beautiful and popular actress and while I think it’s a good sign that she can take that role, I think it lets people off the hook when it comes to challenging prejudice against trans people.

  8. February 6, 2008 at 9:42 am

    Other than the example I mentioned (Candis Cayne on Dirty Sexy Money) I can’t think of any mainstream TV shows where trans people have played trans characters, aside from minor cameos. There was an episode of All My Children which featured a trans support group, populated by actual trans people, and there was a similar scene in the relatively big budget film Transamerica. Some CORPSES of trans people have been played by actual trans people in cop shows, lol. And there are a bunch of indie films. Anyway, this is a little off topic for the post, so maybe back to Cicely’s writing and her subject matter.

  9. Betty Boondoggle
    February 6, 2008 at 10:03 am

    A moving piece. I love to see walls coming down. THanks for posting it!

  10. Kathygnome
    February 6, 2008 at 10:24 am

    The article is interesting and well thought out. I think she represents a pretty good example of a “soft support” person coming over to see things in a different way. I think the “soft” side of things is fairly large and by it I mean people who have a sort of not well thought out acceptance of the claimed arguments of anti-trans people in favor of discrimination against transwomen. For soft supporters, the policy doesn’t really affect them. They want to go to the festival, event, group, or whatever. And nobody in their social circle calls them on attending. So it’s easier to just not worry about it and say exclusion is ok.

    While it’s nice that some people are thinking past these arguments, the real problem is that these arguments, like Republican code words, are fundamentally insincere. Once discredited, they will simply be replaced by new excuses. The original reason for removing a transwoman from the MWMF was that “he” was a “transsexual man.” It was only after that line of biological essentialism became discredited that arguments about “women born women” vs “women born trans” socialization were created. It’s rather like the Republican language about saving marriage and so on. And, in fact, the safety and comfort arguments are the same ones advanced by Christian theocrats opposing trans-rights.

  11. February 6, 2008 at 11:18 am

    Cicely’s aiming it specifically at the soft supporters, who were like her. Not militantly invested in the idea of keeping trans women out, but not really thinking through what’s wrong with it. Obviously, it won’t do any good for those who just hate trans women.

  12. February 6, 2008 at 11:34 am

    Back on topic, I was one of those soft supporters that really had no clue up until recently. On the one hand, I was opposed to descrimination, but on the other I unfortunately accepted arguments that supported descrimination. I can identify with almost every point Cicely made and she expressed it much more eloquently than I can. I just wasn’t at all invested or even aware of the issues at the MWMF specifically. It wasn’t on my radar.

    But since reading several feminist blogs regularly, I’ve realized how flawed my thinking was.

    Thanks for this post, it’s helped to open my eyes even further.

  13. February 6, 2008 at 11:46 am

    While it’s nice that some people are thinking past these arguments, the real problem is that these arguments, like Republican code words, are fundamentally insincere. Once discredited, they will simply be replaced by new excuses.

    What’s reassuring, if you read Cicely’s whole essay, is that she accepted the arguments at face value initially — not because she’s clueless or anything like that, but because she hadn’t really been in contact with thoughtful explanations from actual trans feminists, hadn’t teased it all apart and heard the other side fully. (And I think really clearly hearing both sides was difficult to do in an extremely contentious back-and-forth environment like the Michfest boards.)

    Then, when she had absorbed more, she figured it out for herself. The arguments which seemed OK to take at face value were revealed as having subtle flaws and problems that stem from not really taking into account trans people’s perspective. So to me, that says it’s totally worthwhile to take these arguments apart from trans people’s point of view; for trans people to keep speaking, not necessarily in message-board flame wars but certainly in blogs, to make trans people’s voices and views available to “soft supporters” like Cicely, Astraea, and probably many more.

  14. February 6, 2008 at 12:20 pm

    I understand that a lot of trans feminists or other feminists who understand the arguments, the theory and the history of it all from either a lived experience, shared philosophical/theoretical background or education don’t want to rehash arguments from the ground up. It’s not their job to educate me just like it’s not our job to rehash feminism 101 in discussions about any feminist issue.

    But I don’t think it’s a useless cycle (or I hope it’s not) for those who are doing the work of discrediting them. They may be replaced by other theories and codes, but like many other causes, I hope that the number of people convinced by the new theories and codes gets smaller and smaller.

    But a large part of what convinced me wasn’t theory, it was the hatred and disregard for the point of view of transwomen themselves. I’ve always believed that people with any privilege need to talk less and listen more. How can we theorize about what transexuality means from a point of view that doesn’t listen to or take into account the lived experience of transexuals? That goes against the very foundations of feminism.

  15. February 6, 2008 at 12:22 pm

    Thanks for this post. Actually, I’m appreciating much that is written here. I attend MWMF, or in these parts, its just called Festival. As a lesbian woman, its nice to have a space where we are the common, and my identity is accepted. I have always been torn about the woman born woman policy, having had to delve into my own prejudices regarding gender and identity. When I first attended, I was just glad to have the space, but now, I want all woman born woman there – to me this includes trans individuals. I have no desire to define what it means to be a woman for anyone else, and can only know the space will become better by including all women who know themselves or simply are trying to understand their identified gender.

    Even if its a expensive music festival, its a space that all women should be able to enter.

    In short, thanks for the thoughts and the links.

    If you do go to festival, wear your yellow ribbon and sign the petitions…more and more folks want the policy changed.

    ~GoGo

  16. February 6, 2008 at 12:24 pm

    When you boil it down it’s not that much different than MacKinnon’s idea that female experience carries with it particular ways of seeing and knowing, due to being subordinated by sexism (c.f. the subaltern perspective) and produces its own kind of knowledge that men don’t have.

    But to me (and I’m not transgender) that seems bogus on its face. It’s like positing that a black person who can pass for white is simply the recipient of white privilege and experiences no downsides whatsoever in the conflict between his/her actual race and his/her perceived race.

    I have to say, I’m one of those people who never thought much about trans issues until I started reading Feministe, so it’s been pretty helpful. I was never anti-trans, but it wasn’t something that was on my radar, so these discussions have really opened my eyes.

  17. February 6, 2008 at 1:14 pm

    I recently wrote a piece about an episode in my life that I was ambivalent about, training a young crossdresser in “femininity” (not that I’m particularly femme) and not wanting to go to clubs with him after the first time, because of a gulf beween our perspectives — I’m post-op trans (which often I forget) — the post drew the ire of a radfem whom I greatly respect — and rightly so, I mean, she’s fighting so hard to remove the barriers imposed by patriarchy, and here I am showing someone how to cross over, at least in appearance, for a few hours at a time, to the space that’s been reserved for the underclass, for erotic purposes.

    I suppose I had no right to do that, and I’m ashamed of it: painting with the very brush that the Festival objects to.

    But I defended myself against the charge by observing that crossdressers and transpeople are hard to tell apart sometimes, and we both get killed just for standing on the street corner, for, presumably “deception.” So if we cannot resist adopting, for whatever reasons we have, societally forbidden gender markers, we try for the safety/survival factor of doing it WELL. This is called “stealth.”

    But, see — I don’t feel, day to day, that I’m doing stealth, I feel I’m getting up, brushing my teeth, finding my car keys, and getting on with my day. It’s the most honest day I’m capable of, my former life being much less so.

    Knowing there are those — on the Festival board, for reasons that may or not be valid from someperspectives, or among the freepers, for reasons that may, for all I really know , be equally valid for them — hate me, doesn’t bring me down much, because I’m making a go of my life, such as it is.

    But when I do think about it, I feel a sadness for everyone involved, akin to the sadness I felt for the Iraqis and the Iranians while viewing Persepolis. Was all that meanness necessary? Did it make anyone safer, or happier, really? Satrapi says that it all comes down to integrity, in the little things just the same as in the big things.

    Diversity is to me simply accepting that others have the right to define themselves. Kindness — one of those kindergarten-learned concepts.

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  19. February 6, 2008 at 2:34 pm

    Wonderful, thoughtful post. Thanks for bringing my attention to Cicely’s take on the subject.

  20. Ginjoint
    February 6, 2008 at 2:56 pm

    I was thinking of attending Michfest this year, and went to the Michfest discussion boards to learn more about the debate; I was pretty uninformed (and apathetic) thought I should know more, from both sides.

    When I started reading, my first thought was, holy mackerel, this has gone on a long time. I read many of the threads, and like you, ended up with a headache. The vitriol and the repetition got to me. But in contrast to you, Holly, I think the disrespect goes both ways on those boards. I ended up basically limping away.

  21. February 6, 2008 at 4:06 pm

    Adding my Michfest thread to the mix, which is from August 2007. It provides good background to all sides of the debate also, for interested parties:

    Say Yes to Michigan

    131 comments, most I’ve ever gotten on any single subject!

  22. February 6, 2008 at 5:17 pm

    “The conceptual categories of gender and sex are useful tools that describe many people’s lives, and have meanings and implications in the social sciences and in politics. But it’s dangerous to reify them and build walls around the categories as if they were real, physical, things and not abstractions we humans have built to understand the world.”

    Very, very well said.

  23. Kathleen
    February 6, 2008 at 6:58 pm

    There was one episode of the original CSI show featuring several actual transwomen, including my very own surgeon. The principal criminal character, though, was played by a non-trans woman.

    FWIW, I would love to go to Michigan, but only if I can do so openly, as my trans-self, and be welcomed. Until then, I will wait, and politely decline to financially support those folks that appear there. I’m currently facing a dilemma, in that there is an artist I really like, and know personally, who is probably going to perform there in the fall. I will likely have a chat with her sometime soon and let her know my feelings on the matter. I would sure hate to have to give her up.

  24. arled
    February 6, 2008 at 7:22 pm

    Never will attend a music festival that goes so far as to ban male dogs from the space.

  25. February 6, 2008 at 7:44 pm

    Ginjoint,

    But in contrast to you, Holly, I think the disrespect goes both ways on those boards. I ended up basically limping away.

    Of course the disrespect goes both ways – on one side, you have those with cis privilege denying personhood and legitimacy to those who lack cis privilege. On the other side, you have trans people reacting to that. In other words, the transphobic posters are being disrespectful to trans women because of who we are. In response, the pro-inclusion posters who are being disrespectful are disrespectful because they’re dealing with bigotry head on. I’m sorry if asserting personhood and equality in the face of so much prejudice is disrespect, but I don’t see how inviting anyone for tea and crumpets will accomplish anything, either.

    The disrespect is not equal going both ways.

  26. February 6, 2008 at 9:56 pm

    I’ve seen the “experience of growing up female” argument put forth a lot — to comment partially in response to Mandolin in #2 — and it’s worthwhile as far as it goes. (I heard it as an argument for “men can’t be feminists” well before I was familiar with the warfare over trans issues.)

    And “as far as it goes” has to be put in the context of me literally never having heard it from someone whose experience of growing up female as presented has anything in common with mine.

    Gods know I have some Issues with the whole concept of what it means to “be female”, but the folks who posit some kind of shared female experience mostly lead to me coming to the carefully considered conclusion that whatever “female” is, it doesn’t describe me, even with my genetic patterning and developing-without-medical-intervention breasts and all. The sheer vehemence and venom of the policing on womanhood mostly drives me away from identifying myself there — I’m like the student who doesn’t go to any effort to police other people’s perceptions of my gender/sex these days — because it’s all full of The Experience Is Like This stuff that never happened to me.

    When I first ran into the whole Female Experience thing in regards to transfolks I just stared, honestly. Yeah, I don’t share the same Female Experience as my trans friends; I don’t share the same Female Experience as anyone else either, so what makes that difference so special?

  27. Rebecca
    February 6, 2008 at 10:55 pm

    I read a story the other day where the main character was contemplating all the various ‘roles’ she played in her life. Roles like scholar, British, investigator and wife. As an afterthought, she included Jew. It was part of her identity, but a part she did not hold uppermost in her thoughts.

    It started me thinking and I glanced at my profile page over on LiveJournal. I identified myself as a pacifist, a non-believer, bisexual, a teacher, a writer and as childfree…but never mentioned ‘woman’. I thought at first it was merely the way I had phrased my profile, so I started scanning some other profiles and in the vast majority of them, people identified themselves as male or female in some way or other, either through ‘mother of ‘ or ‘proud father of ‘ or just straight out, unamibigous ‘woman’/ ‘man’.

    It’s rather interesting, because I’m aware I’m a woman. I have girly bits and for the most part, despite my general build and short hair, most people can visually ID me as female, and I really don’t have issues with being perceived as a woman, but if I were to list out the ‘roles’ I play, I’m not even sure woman would be an afterthought.

    Mostly, in the end, it all boils down to the fact that I don’t like being judged on my physical being. If boobs and a vagina are the be all and end all, get a blow up doll. Judge a person’s soul, not their body.

  28. cicely
    February 7, 2008 at 12:28 pm

    I really hope that the Michigan Women’s Music Festival community can eventually work through all of this and reach a place of healing. And that includes those petitioning to be a real part of that community and those who have been illicitly part of it for years under a “don’t ask don’t tell” type of policy, Thoughtful processes like Cicely’s make me think that all of that might actually be possible one day.

    Well, I do like to imagine a future from which we’re looking back at all this, and I never thought I’d live long enough to do more than imagine a lesbian centred tv show, a movie like Brokeback Mountain or even the possibility of a woman President in the US, so….

    …and I do think, using myself as ‘exhibit A’, that the internet offers a great opportunity to speed up change.

  29. cicely
    February 7, 2008 at 12:52 pm

    I’ve always believed that people with any privilege need to talk less and listen more. How can we theorize about what transexuality means from a point of view that doesn’t listen to or take into account the lived experience of transexuals? That goes against the very foundations of feminism.

    Absolutely, Astraea. Sometimes I’ve wondered how lesbians can fail to recognise this, given how invisibilised we have always been ourselves whilst being endlessly talked ‘about’ in the wider world. You know, the old ‘she must have had a bad experience with a man’ and all the rest. Then I’ve thought, well, they ‘can’ see this, but they’re set up in opposition (those who are) and still convinced that it’s they who are not being heard. I don’t think that’s too difficult to understand, but the whole picture needs to be filled out. I think the strong resistance to the term ‘cisexual’ is all about not wanting to allow that there’s any such thing as cisexual privilege because what follows is an obligation to listen to transexual women. (I’d say transexual men too but in this context there’s definitely some welcoming of trans men going on, based on the idea that trans men had girlhoods. This also denies the realities of male trans childhood though.)

  30. February 7, 2008 at 4:19 pm

    I really do not get into the MWMF problems because to me it really is more symbolic then anything else of splits within the lesbian and queer community.

    I think this article may be symbolic of how the lesbian community as a whole is starting to approach as well as mature with regards to trans people, but especially trans women.

    But in recent years there has been signs of positive change. Far to many to list here.

    Yes there are essentialist attitudes that persist, but the community is evolving and these views are less common. If anything it is a testament to the internet, and blogs, which have opened up a dialog and have facilitated a healing process. I think this entry is a prime example of this.

    The community is evolving though, and people within the community are evolving.

  31. healthbuddy
    February 8, 2008 at 8:13 pm

    Having watched this debate rather quietly from the sidelines for many years, I have to say that the blogosphere has totally changed the debate and connected it to a whole lot more feminist thinkers than just various people who attend Michfest or the loose coalitions of trans people and allies who oppose the policy. It’s no longer possible to pretend, as you could five years ago, that everyone who disagrees with the policy are all “privileged, space-invading transgenders” and “young lesbians who are obsessed with trannyboys.”

    If you’ve never been to Camp Trans before you should come this year. It is not simply a ‘loose coalition of trans people and allies’, it is a rapidly expanding community of folks who discuss/deal with much more than MWMF-related issues. I think you’ll find the community includes many other people than “privileged, space-invading transgenders and young lesbians who are obsessed with trannyboys.” So show up. We’re even really friendly. And camping with us doesn’t cost $400. In fact, it’s free.

  32. February 8, 2008 at 9:48 pm

    You know, the WBW thing reminds me of nothing so much as the Sneetches. I’ve heard all the arguments, and I just can’t see it as boiling down to anything more or less than “it’s no good if just ANYONE can have one.” not the point of my feminism, never has been.

  33. February 8, 2008 at 9:49 pm

    and while I’m less familiar with it and feel less qualified to comment on it, as an outsider, what I’ve seen of the HBS purist camp makes me think exactly the same thing:

    “It’s no good if just -anyone- can have one.”

    this is not democracy, this is not feminism, this is not progressive, and this is not smart. also, it sucks.

  34. Marissa
    February 10, 2008 at 2:58 am

    I wish there were someway to adequately thank Cicely for her insighfulness and at the same time wonder at Holly’s sensitivity.

    I am member of the least visible population in the world. I am a former trans kid. I can only speak for myself and no one else. I am not a member of the trans community and never have been.

    Cicely is remarkable in what she said about children. When I was tiny, I remember hearing my father say to the family, “men are better than women.” Not only was I appalled but the statement didn’t apply to me. It was a statement about men. There’s no mystery about such children at all. I heard the message the same way any girl would. He was saying he was better than me. I don’t know how complicated this is Cicely, it’s seems straightforward. Could it be it seems complicated for you because it’s not something you would expect?

  35. cicely
    February 10, 2008 at 10:56 am

    I am member of the least visible population in the world. I am a former trans kid. I can only speak for myself and no one else… When I was tiny, I remember hearing my father say to the family, “men are better than women.” Not only was I appalled but the statement didn’t apply to me. It was a statement about men. There’s no mystery about such children at all. I heard the message the same way any girl would. He was saying he was better than me. I don’t know how complicated this is Cicely, it’s seems straightforward. Could it be it seems complicated for you because it’s not something you would expect?

    What I meant to convey, Marissa, is that I acknowledge experiences like yours. Feminists who hold anti-trans views don’t allow for it. They speak as if they believe a trans girl simply absorbs all the gendered social messages meant for a *boy*, without complication in her mind, because she has the body of a boy, and is being acted upon in the world as if she was a boy. I can see what you’re saying – that you knew – clearly – that when your father said what he said, you heard it as any girl would hear it, so that was straightforward for you.

    Other trans children no doubt had the same experience you did, and then others may have struggled working out which gendered messages to do what with – as in interpret as well act on – based on all the different ways a child might be trying to understand themselves and how they were hoping or planning to be and to live, what with all the overwhelming status quo expectations. That’s what I mean by ‘not in an uncomplicated fashion’, and I borrowed that phrase from Lisa from Questioning Transphobia (and a couple of comments above). Thanks, Lisa – I should have said so earlier too. :-).

    I’ve learned what I’ve learned from listening to trans women and trans men, and I’m so glad to hear your voice here as well.

  36. March 17, 2008 at 7:44 am

    I won’t be attending any of the Michigan festivals, unlike some of my friends.

    I’ve had enough Patriarchal bigotry to face in my life. Disguising the same transphobic Aristocracy of privilege in a dress and putting lipstick on it, calling it “womyn born womyn” and pretending it’s Feminism won’t change its essential nature.

    I wouldn’t feel comfortable there, neither as a woman, nor as a human being. Most who attend are quite nice people, they have no interest in the issue. But there are enough transphobic infiltrators there, some who “pass as normal”, to make the whole atmosphere toxic and unsafe.

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